Can Israel Afford to Slow Down Iran's Nuclear Program?

Although Prime Minister Netanyahu insists that Israel will not allow Iran to acquire the bomb, it’s not clear Israel can afford to pay the price involved in slowing down Iran by even a few years. But what are the alternatives?

Whoever takes notice of the content and historical context of recent statements made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be left with no doubt: Iran's possession of a nuclear bomb will represent an existential threat that the State of Israel will not tolerate. He made remarks in this vein during the central ceremony at Yad Vashem marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in April 2009, a short time after he was sworn into office. "We will not allow Holocaust deniers to carry out a second Holocaust against the Jewish people," the premier said.

Netanyahu made similar statements at the same ceremony one year later. These words should lead to one obvious conclusion: Israel will do anything in its power - including use of military force - to prevent Iran from obtaining its first nuclear weapon.

The reactor under construction near the Iranian city of Bushehr

On two separate occasions within the last quarter century have Israel Air Force pilots destroyed nuclear facilities in hostile Arab countries in order to prevent those states from acquiring nuclear armaments. The first instance occurred on the Shavuot holiday 29 years ago. On June 7, 1981, a squadron of eight IAF F-16 fighter jets, accompanied by eight other F-15s, attacked the nuclear reactor built by French scientists near Baghdad. Within two minutes, the reactor was destroyed.

The assault was a classic case of preemptive attack, designed to deny the ambitious Saddam Hussein the opportunity of manufacturing a nuclear weapon. This was also the first time in history that one country destroyed a nuclear facility belonging to another country.

The leader who deserves credit for the bold decision is the late prime minister Menachem Begin, who was operating seemingly against all odds. He needed to overcome opposition from ministers in his cabinet, members of the Israel Defense Forces General Staff and senior intelligence officials - all of whom expressed concern over the Arab world's response and possible international condemnation. Shimon Peres, who at the time was opposition leader and a figure who views himself as the founding father of Israel's nuclear program, exerted significant efforts to thwart the plan, warning Begin that it would cause Israel to become as isolated in world public opinion as a thistle in the desert.

Acting out of a deep - almost religious - sense of conviction, Begin was not deterred by the naysayers and won approval for the attack in a cabinet vote. As someone whose very being was shaped by the Holocaust, he had often repeated the refrain, "Never again." Never again will the Jewish people stand before an existential threat. Netanyahu's statements are like an echo of Begin's.

In retrospect, after the bombing in Iraq, analysts began to speak of the prime minister's decision and his steadfast belief in preemption as "the Begin doctrine," thereby granting it strategic significance. Experts said that essentially this worldview posits that Israel - which is believed by the entire world to possess nuclear weapons - will never permit another country in the Middle East to obtain a nuclear bomb that would threaten its security.

Yet not all are in agreement that the Begin doctrine was born of age-old fears that Israel is at risk of suffering another Holocaust. There are those who believe that this approach was motivated by other factors that have nothing to do with any link between historical context and survival instincts. These skeptics say that Israel will not allow other countries to acquire nuclear weapons simply because it seeks to preserve its nuclear monopoly in the region.

Either way, the Begin doctrine was put to another test 26 years later. In September 2007, IAF pilots successfully destroyed a nuclear reactor on the banks of the Euphrates River, in Syria. It was a facility built by that country, with financial assistance from Iran as well as expertise and know-how from North Korea.

Israel's image

A number of differences between these two attacks stand out. Prior to the Iraqi incident, Israel did not keep other countries - including the United States, whose president at the time was Ronald Reagan, one of the friendliest leaders Jerusalem has ever had in the White House - abreast of its plans. After the attack, the Israeli government officially announced that its pilots had done the deed. In Syria, the opposite is said to have occurred. Then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak notified the Americans hours before the strike took place. Since the operation, however, Israel has been vague about its role in the attack, refraining from officially claiming responsibility.

Israel's image on the world stage is to a large extent a product of these two successful strikes. They created the impression that the IAF in particular, and the Israel Defense Forces in general, are capable of executing any order that is received from the civilian echelon. There are quite a few politicians in Israel, as well as army generals, who have become "prisoners" to this myth. In practice, however, the reality is far more complex and painful.

While the prime minister continues to speak of "Never again" and the defense minister keeps proclaiming that "all options are on the table," behind the scenes, and in private, both the military and civilian echelons are singing a completely different tune. They grasp the enormous strategic, political, economic and military difficulties that will surely arise in the event of an attack on Iran.

One of the first to embrace a more sober view of the situation is Brig. Gen. (res. ) Relik Shafir, who until recently occupied the third-most important post in the IAF hierarchy, and who in his younger days took part in the attack on the reactor in Iraq. As far back as five years ago, Shafir let me in on the painful truth: The IAF would have great difficulty in repeating its success in Iraq if it were ordered to strike Iran.

"The Iranians have learned the lessons from the attack on the Iraqi reactor," Shafir said. "In Iraq, the entire nuclear program was concentrated in the reactor. The Iranians on the other hand have built a number of nuclear facilities in different areas around the country. Some of them are located in eastern Iran. They have 'hardened' their facilities by building them underground or by placing them in bunkers. In all honesty, the IAF lacks a real strategic capability to bomb distant targets over a prolonged period of time while using the necessary level of firepower."

Based on research studies by foreign think tanks, including the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, most of the facilities that would apparently be targeted are already known. There is the chemical plant for uranium conversation near the city of Isfahan, the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, another plant in Qom, and perhaps another enrichment facility whose existence has yet to be revealed.

In order for a strike to be effective, then, one would have to deal with a wide variety of targets. While the existence of these targets may be known to intelligence officials in Israel and the West, only a superpower with strategic bombing capability, like the United States, can successfully put them out of commission. Even the former IAF commander and chief of staff Dan Halutz wrote in his memoir, published last fall, that the Iranian nuclear program is a global problem, and that Israel's prominent role at the forefront of the international effort is of little benefit to solving the problem. According to Halutz, the complexity of the Iranian question requires that other countries endeavor to find a solution.

It is not just former and current air force officers who recognize the difficult set of circumstances. An intimate knowledge of the character and behavior of most members of the national military and political echelons leads one to the conclusion that they too are well aware of the limitations of Israeli might. Netanyahu is considered to be hesitant, and someone who easily panics - traits that might well make it difficult for him to order the IDF to take action. Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, under whose tenures Israel launched the strike on Syria, are considered cautious, responsible leaders who are aware of the enormous differences between the Syrian reactor and the Iranian facilities.

What will Washington say?

More than anything, Israel's prime consideration in any decision related to national security and existential matters has always been the position of the United States. On nearly every issue related to war and peace, Israel has in the past first tried to determine what Washington would say or do in response. Israel initiated the Six-Day War only after it was made clear to it that the U.S. would not oppose it. Israel refrained from launching a preemptive attack against Egypt in October 1973, even when it was clear that war would erupt within hours, for fear that Washington would blame it for sparking hostilities. Israel invaded Lebanon only after then-defense minister Ariel Sharon understood from statements by then-secretary of state Alexander Haig that the Reagan administration would be able to live with the move.

Hence one is likely to draw the reasonable, logical conclusion that Israel will not attack Iran as long as the Obama administration remains adamantly opposed. And, just to remove any lingering doubt, Washington has taken the trouble to dispatch all of its senior defense officials to Israel to make its position unequivocally clear: Indeed, in the last six months, Israel has hosted Vice President Joe Biden, CIA chief Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Senator John Kerry, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen. All of these men told Israel's leaders: "Don't do it."

The U.S. and the European Union fear that Iran would retaliate to any strike by attacking American and NATO forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and a special adviser to President Barack Obama, told me that in his view Iran could definitely "make life hell" for U.S. troops in the region. An Israeli bombardment would sow instability in the Middle East, rally Sunni-Muslim support for Shi'ite Iran, and endanger the pro-Western regimes in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Bahrain and all the other Arab emirates. An Israeli campaign could also move Iran to block the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow, strategic waterway through which more than one-fourth of the world's oil supplies flow. Even if the American fleet were ultimately to break through the blockade, it would still send oil prices skyrocketing to unprecedented levels - perhaps as high as $200 a barrel. This, in turn, would foment economic chaos worldwide.

Arab silence

Let us assume that at some point, as a last resort, the American administration changes its mind and gives Israel the green light to carry out its strike against Iran. Will Israel's leaders have the courage to order such an attack?

In such a scenario, there will be a number of considerations that Israel needs to take into account. The first factor is intelligence. In recent years, there has been an accelerated flow of intelligence information from Iran that has reached Western agencies. What is most striking about the data is its improving quality. More operatives have been enlisted, the methods of technological information-gathering have been refined, senior scientists and generals have been successfully enticed to defect and shed light on the Iranian nuclear program, and there has been harmonious intelligence cooperation between various agencies on the ground. These bodies are so in synch that they have even begun to jointly operate the same agents.

The West has also succeeded in foiling attempts by Iranian straw companies and front groups to purchase equipment - and, alternatively, in selling Iran faulty materials. Details of one such deal emerged in late 2008, during the trial of Iranian businessman Ali Ashtari, an electronics trader who was executed for allegedly spying for the Mossad. Ashtari was accused of selling defective material to Iran so as to "poison" its nuclear program.

Despite the considerable successes that can be credited to the Mossad and its chief, Meir Dagan, the bottom line is that the latter did not fulfill the promise he gave to his civilian superiors when he was named to his post eight years ago: that he would derail Iran's nuclear program. Iran's efforts to build a bomb continue, albeit at a slow pace, toward its goal.

It is clear to everyone involved in the decision-making process that Israel's only remaining option is an air force strike combined with the deployment of ground-to-ground missiles, which according to foreign sources would be fired from bases in Israel. Perhaps Israel would also utilize its three Dolphin submarines to launch the missiles.

It appears that the IAF's capability to carry out the mission successfully is limited, particularly when compared with that of the U.S. Yet before this issue is even considered, one must wrestle with the question of which route it will choose. According to research papers published in recent years in the U.S., there are three possibilities: the southern route, which is the lengthiest, which would entail flying over Saudi Arabia; the central route, which is the shortest distance since it traverses Jordan and Iraq; and the northern route, which runs along the Syrian-Turkish seam line. Each of these options presents advantages and disadvantages that need to be carefully weighed. Planners must also take into account how these routes will affect the quantity and weight of the firearms that could be carried by warplanes (which also depends on whether the planes fly at a high or low altitude ), the logistics of mid-air refueling and, most important, the risk that these jets will be detected and will encounter hostile elements.

'Bunker busters'

Another issue that needs to be addressed is the number of aircraft that would be able to participate in an assault. According to the same American research, Israel can dispatch no more than 120 fighter jets that would be able to complete a mission to Iran. Ostensibly the number of aircraft also dictates the quantity of armaments they will carry. This is especially significant since the U.S. is refusing to provide Israel with its most advanced, sophisticated munitions, known as "bunker busters."

One can certainly assume that an Israeli attack on Iran will be carried out with conventional means. Any rational individual needs to understand that if Israel were to use nuclear weapons for offensive purposes rather than self-defense, it would cease to be an accepted member of the community of nations. It would be an outcast even among its supporters. Yet even if IAF jets possessed high-quality conventional arms, would they be adequate to penetrate underground bunkers? And even if the targets are destroyed, the operation's planners should ask themselves how long it would take for Iran to rebuild them. Is it worth taking all of these risks just to delay Iran's nuclear program for two to three years? And we have yet to address the issue of the number of pilots and planes that may not make it back from their mission, a question that also needs to be examined by those who are studying the various options.

Here is another consideration that ought to preoccupy the civilian echelon: While most Arab countries are no less concerned than Israel over the possibility that Iran will arm itself with nuclear weapons, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates would not dare express public support for an Israeli assault, let alone allow IAF warplanes to fly over their territories en route to Iran, even if they secretly hope that such a plan comes to fruition. Israel needs to take into account that the Arab regimes, which are liable to clash head-on with the rage of public opinion in their countries, will not only be forced to condemn "Israeli aggression," but will also be compelled to take practical steps, such as severing diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.

Yet perhaps the most important consideration that the powers-that-be in Israel need to mull is Iran's response to an attack. In retaliation, Iran would launch Shihab missiles at Israel. It possesses 100 such projectiles. Some of them will not reach their target while others will be intercepted by the Arrow missile defense system, yet a number of them can be expected to hit their intended destination. In addition, Iran will unleash its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, the militant group that boasts thousands of rockets and missiles that can reach most of Israel.

One should also take into account the possibility that Syria, whose missile stockpile significantly dwarfs that of Hezbollah, will also join the hostilities. It is not inconceivable that Hamas would also spring into action to aid its benefactor and patron Iran.

Iran will "awaken" its terrorist sleeper cells worldwide by giving them the green light to attack Israeli and Jewish targets abroad. While the means at Iran's disposal do not represent an existential threat to Israel, it is highly doubtful that the public here - whose home front has in recent years demonstrated a vulnerability and unwillingness to absorb casualties that is partly spurred on by an increasingly sensationalist media - will be capable of withstanding such a campaign, even if the damage proves to be minimal.

In light of these dangers and the varying uncertainties, the most logical conclusion that can be reached is that Israel's leadership will find it difficult to come to a final decision to bomb Iran. The significance of this is that Israel will just have to live in the shadow of the Iranian atomic bomb and all of its ramifications. Some Israelis may come to the conclusion that there is no future for them or their children under those circumstances, and thus prefer to emigrate. An Iranian nuclear weapon, after all, could induce Arab states to develop their own atomic bombs, thus ushering in a new era. The Israeli leadership would have to reconcile itself to an arms race in the Middle East.

On the other hand, can the Israeli leadership ever accept such a situation whereby the existence of the state of the Jewish people is dependent on the mercy of a leader with messianic tendencies, a man who has repeatedly claimed that Israel has no right to exist, and that it should be wiped off the map?

Given all of these factors, it is obvious that the question of "to bomb or not to bomb" that stands before the Israeli leadership is one of the most difficult issues in the state's history. It is no less difficult than David Ben-Gurion's decision to declare independence in May 1948.